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029 - How to find your niche... and no, your niche is not 'vegan'

How do you find your niche as a vegan business?  If you think you are already a niche company just because you are a vegan company then I’m afraid you’re at least five years too late. ‘Vegan’ is just the sector you are in and if you want to find your niche, then you are going to have to dig deeper.

A niche is something that a lot of the population won’t care about but a select, smaller percent of people will absolutely LOVE. And if you do it right, you can develop a company that has pretty much no competition. In this episode, David takes a look at how businesses find their niche and why just thinking you have found a gap in the market isn’t enough.

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Full episode transcript

Hello and welcome to episode twenty-nine of The Vegan Business Tribe Podcast with myself David Pannell, co-founder of Vegan Business Tribe.  If you have a vegan business, or are thinking of starting one, then Vegan Business Tribe is here to support and inspire you not just to build a vegan business, but to build a SUCCESSFUL vegan business.

And if you want to go beyond the podcast and connect with our community of like-minded vegan entrepreneurs then head over to Vegan Business Tribe .com where you can get more involved in our community and help support our mission.  You can also attend our online meet-ups, get support from Lisa and I with your vegan business, study our vegan marketing course and just be part of a wonderful community of vegan business people just like you.  And we’re always really grateful to our members because they are the people who mean we can keep recording this podcast every week and putting out all our content and just generally doing everything we can to support vegan business worldwide.

Now, it’s been a busy old time at Vegan Business Tribe.  We’ve just put out what is something of an annual report on the website (our ‘journey’ document as we’re calling it) that covers what we’ve achieved in the first year of Vegan Business Tribe and what our plans are for the next twelve months.  I know a lot of our members enjoy learning from watching how we’re building Vegan Business Tribe, so we’ve been as transparent and open as possible in this report, sharing all our figures, how we do our own marketing, what we’ve learned and how we’ve taken all our member feedback to make a plan for the next year.  So if you like that real ‘behind the scenes’ stuff, go download the PDF from the website and also let us know what you think to our plans for the next 12 months.

And one of the great things about Vegan Business Tribe is how much hands-on time we get to spend with our members in the Slack group and the business clinics, and not only does this mean we get constant feedback from our members but it also gives me endless topic ideas for this podcast. Probably at least 50% of these podcasts come from conversations we have with Vegan Business Tribe members.  And today is no different, because in two of last week’s business clinics, the topic of ‘finding your niche’ came up.  And if you’re already a vegan business then you might think this is a bit of a dumb question because surely ‘vegan’ is already a niche.  But if you think you are already a niche company just because you are a vegan company then I’m afraid you’re at least five years too late.  Go back five years ago and if I’d have spotted a ‘vegan burger’ at a supermarket, I would have probably bought it just for the novelty value.  The last time I went around our local supermarket I counted 7 different vegan burgers, and three of these were the supermarket’s own brand.  I used the example of burgers, but I could have said vegan videographers, vegan copywriters, vegan personal trainers, vegan cake companies, vegan food trucks, vegan greetings card companies or vegan local takeaways – I could introduce you to several companies in each of those sectors off the top of my head.   You have to understand that ‘vegan’ is just the sector you are in, you are no longer in a niche.  And if you want to find your niche, you are going to have to dig deeper.

But before we get too far into that, let’s just take a step back and look at the concept of what a niche is and why it’s important. First, if you’re listening in the US and you’re wondering what the heck I’m talking about then you will have heard it called a ‘nitch’ – that’s just a transatlantic pronunciation thing!  Niche is a French word, it just means alcove or a recess in a wall, so in the UK we tend to pronounce it the same way as the French do. But we know our friends in the US like to make words their own and so pronounce it ‘nitch’ – but it just means the same thing.  It means having a really focused area of specialism for your businesses. A niche in business terms is something that most of the population won’t really care about – but a select, smaller per cent of people will absolutely LOVE. For example, you might sell bikes, but if you sell bikes just for people who live in high-rise flats or on canal boats or city apartments – THAT would be a really niche product and you might think that’s quite a small markets as far as selling bikes goes.  And you are right.  When most people are buying a bike, where they are going to store it isn’t actually that important to most people; we care more about how many gears it’s got or what the frame is made of, or is it a road bike or a trail bike. But for some people, having nowhere to keep a bike is a real issue that stops them from buying one.  And they are a really underserved market – you walk into a bike shop and say you need a bike that takes up no space and you’ll be met with some interesting faces from the sales staff.  But that’s where Brompton Bikes comes from – they are very modern practical bikes that fold up into about a half-meter that you could easily put in a cupboard or the bottom of your wardrobe.  Perfect if you live in a city flat.  And that’s their real niche market they have developed – selling not to people who want a bike, but people who want to own a bike but have no space to keep one.  This means that all their marketing can be created so that it resonates with a specific type of customer – no need to try and fight the other bike companies about how many gears you have or how light your frame is, they know they are solving a really niche problem for a specific customer so will win every time.  And Brompton Bikes are not just popular with people who live in apartments, they are really popular with people who have a canal boat, or a camper van too.  And believe it or not, Brompton is the UK’s largest bike manufacturer – making about 45 thousand bikes a year. But there’s a good chance that YOU have never heard of them, because you’re not in that niche.

And this is the beauty of developing a niche.  You can be a really successful business that no one has heard of and have almost no competition in your market.  As another example, you might come up with the idea to make a vegan greeting cards company.  And there’s a fair chance that you didn’t know that a lot of greetings cards are not actually vegan – the inks they use, the glues, the laminate that makes them all shiny on the front – all of these can, and regularly do, have animal ingredients in them. So you come up with the idea to make a vegan greetings cards company and think ‘what an amazing idea, what an amazing niche, all the vegans will flock to me!’.  Well, sorry – nope. Just go and type vegan greetings cards into Google and take a scroll through the six and a half million results. That’s because (as we said before) vegan greetings cards are not a niche, at least not anymore, it’s now a sector.  And if you want a business that operates in a niche you are going to have to drill down a lot further than that.  And that’s exactly what vegan greetings cards company Little Green Pigeon did, they create vegan greeting cards especially for people who love pigeons. Now I know what you’re thinking, but even if you want a Happy Easter card, you can get one with a cartoon of a pigeon wearing rabbit ears for that someone in your life who LOVES pigeons. THAT is a niche, and if you’re vegan, and you love pigeons or you want to buy a card or a t-shirt or even a printed water bottle for someone else who loves pigeons, then once you know Little Green Pigeon no other greetings card company will be able to compete for your business.

Now, the reason Lisa and I love Little Green Pigeon is because we’ve had rescue pigeons that have made their home on our balcony that we’ve cared for.  And it’s not until you’ve spent time in the company of a pigeon, and stick with me on this one, that you genuinely come to appreciate what amazing little characters they are.  So of course, if you have no interest in pigeons then you will just scratch your head at the idea of a whole website dedicated to greetings cards featuring cartoon pigeons – but for those who have made a similar connection to pigeons that Lisa and I have, there’s no need to ever buy a card from any other company.  As one of the slogans says, in a world full of flamingos – be a pigeon.

And this isn’t just a hobby company.  Sue who owns Little Green Pigeon is able to take a wage from the businesses and the sales from the online card shop go directly towards the running costs of their family-run bird sanctuary in Staffordshire.  Now, this isn’t just me giving a plug to one of our Vegan Business Tribe members – although Sue has been amazing in her support for us in this first year and I know is a regular listener so go check her out at littlegreenpigeon.co.uk, but this is a real example of what having a niche business can do.  Sue could just run a greetings cards company, and she would find herself in competition with every other greetings company out there.  Drilling down a bit more, Sue could have launched a VEGAN greeting card company – but even the biggest online card companies now have vegan ranges made with animal-free inks and laminates.  But because she’s found this real niche, once someone who is vegan and REALLY loves pigeons finds her company, she has no competition.  Does this mean that she has a far far smaller customer base to try and sell to – yes, of course it does.  But it’s far better to get ALL the sales within a niche than be constantly fighting every other company over a really small percentage of sales in a bigger marketplace.

Having a niche company also means that you will find it far easier to build a following and connect with your potential customers.  Say you are a personal trainer.  If that’s the only way you present yourself, saying you work with anyone and everyone, then you are putting yourself in direct competition with every other personal trainer in your local area.  But how about if you are a personal trainer who also helps people to transition to plant-based too? Straight away you will have put off about three-quarters of your potential marketplace, and that’s great.  Because now you know that you can change your marketing messages so you really connect with not just people who are looking to get fit, but as part of that they are also interested in the idea of plant-based eating.  You will just connect with them all the better.  But what if you narrow that down even more, perhaps you are a personal trainer who loves introducing people to plant-based, but you’ve had some real success in working with people over 50.  Instead of being a general personal trainer, why not set yourself up as a specialist doing just that.  And again, this sounds counter-intuitive, because you might feel that you have just put a huge scythe through the majority of your potential customers – but what you have actually done is uncovered those that really connect with your niche and your message.  Because if you are a 55-year-old man who has just come back from the doctors and been told that you need to reduce your cholesterol, cut down on eating meat, and lose weight else you might not be back for your 60-year-old check-up – then to this person, YOU will have no competition. All your marketing messages will hit home.  You can talk about why your approach works so well for the over 50s.  You could line up with 20 other personal trainers, and that customer would pick you every time.  Even if you were the most expensive.  Even if you had a six-week waiting list.

But you don’t need to make that leap to niche straight away, in fact you would be a bit of a fool if you just sacked all your current customers because you think your new marketing messages might put them off.  Most of our customers only look at our website or engage with our marketing BEFORE they are a customer – your long term customers probably haven’t been to your homepage in ages.  But the improvement you will get in being able to put out marketing messages that really connect with a specific, niche customer -being able to prove that you are the absolute expert in dealing with their specific problem – will more than replace any customers that might get put off.

I’ll use myself as an example.  In one of my very early businesses, we used to sell websites to absolutely anyone who wanted a website.  We said we gave a great service, we said we were really creative, we said we spent time getting to understand the customer – but everyone else said that too.  And guess what, the only way we could find to win businesses regularly was by being the cheapest, which is never a pleasant business model – but we scrapped away at that one for years trying to make enough profit and scale up a business that was trying to sell websites cheaper than everyone else.  Contrast that with Lisa and mine’s last business before we moved into the vegan sector, we made a name for ourselves as the go-to marketing consultants for a really specific niche manufacturing sector that many people found difficult to work in, but we loved, had experience in and excelled at.  And we charging 100 times more than I was charging 10 years earlier trying to sell to everyone.  And yes, I did have to go use a calculator to double-check my figures were correct on that one. And that’s the power of being a niche company.

So, I’m aware that I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking now without really answering the question we set out to answer: how do you actually find your niche.  And if I’m being honest, it’s actually quite hard because most find it by accident. And I want to be really honest with you about this – it’s rare I meet a business that launches a niche business day one and makes a success of it.  Because, by their very nature, niches usually lay undiscovered.  A lot of people set out to build a business because they think they have found a gap in the market, but without actually proving that there’s a market in that gap.  There’s no point setting up a company selling left-handed basket-weaving kits just because you’re a left-handed basket weaver and couldn’t find a kit for you.  So that’s why finding a niche is usually a bit of a journey; it takes time and experience of a marketplace to then find and develop a niche within it.  The personal trainer who specialises in over 50s doesn’t start out doing that, they start out as a normal personal trainer and then happen to get one customer over 50 and realises that their mix of training and personality actually works quite well for older people.  And before they know it they have found their niche. So often, we have to start out quite generalist until we better understand the sector we are working in and find the niches within it.  Go listen to any ‘founders story’ of how someone set up a large successful company and you will hear a story of how someone stumbled upon a niche idea usually by failing with lots of different other ideas first.  Air BNB is called Air BNB because it was supposed to be people renting air beds in their houses.  The global fitness phenomenon Zumba started by mistake when aerobics teacher Beto Perez brought the wrong music to his class.  You are probably going to find YOUR niche when you are looking for something else entirely.  It’s this idea of movement, of being on a journey, of keeping talking and testing and being open to opportunities that you really need to embrace.  It will be a conversation with a single customer, or it will be a product that takes off like you were not expecting it to, or it will be a chance encounter with someone at a networking event or vegan fair that will lead to you developing a niche offering.  It will be a test that doesn’t quite go the way you thought it would. It will be a reaction from your customers that you were not expecting.  And you might think that’s a bit of a cop-out answer to the question of how to find your niche, but it’s important that you understand a HUGE part of finding your niche is actually being open to finding it in the first place.

I’ve met so many companies over the last year who have found their niche because they have been forced to try lots of different ideas in response to the coronavirus and, although we have to acknowledge for some businesses the coronavirus lock-downs have been devastating, for others it is exactly the shake-up they needed to find what was going to make them a success.  Have you ever worked for a business that refused to try anything new and just become stagnant?  Well, the wonderful thing about having your own business is that you are in charge of your journey. If you want to change the situation you are in, you can – you are not a pot plant!  But we can forget that.  If you are trying to find a niche, purposely agitate your businesses and follow your hunches; speak to your customers and test what you learn.  If a customer who loves your products says ‘wouldn’t it be great if…’ then try the ‘if’.  You don’t need to spend months getting ready to launch a new product to test it, take an idea, set yourself a deadline of 48 hours, put a single web page together rather than a full website and send it out and get some feedback – is there interest in this before taking it further?  Don’t spend six months creating an online course or writing a book, run a couple of ‘Facebook lives’ to see who turns up or some question and answer sessions on Zoom and see what you can learn from them first. If it works and you’ve found something people seem to love, put some more time and resources into it to take it further.  If it doesn’t, take what you learnt and move onto the next one.

Again, take Lisa and I.  We didn’t set out to launch Vegan Business Tribe – we knew we wanted to be in the vegan sector and set out doing something completely different. It wasn’t until a chance presentation that I did at the Plant-Based Expo at London Olympia a year later, with really low expectations but an open mind, that we discovered our niche.

So once you’ve got yourself to the place where you are open to finding these opportunities, and more importantly you’re actually taking steps to make those opportunities happen – you’re talking to your customers and really making them your best friends, you’re getting out from behind your desk and mixing with other people on the same mission as you to stimulate those conversations – once you’re doing all this then there’s an extra thing you have to do to help you to move towards finding your niche.  And that is: take your direction from your heart.  Now, I can maybe only get away with saying this because we’re a vegan business podcast, but one of the most important pieces of business advice I ever got was to align your passion with how you make a living.  It’s why Lisa and I wanted to get involved in the vegan business scene in the first place.  And if you are trying to decide on your niche then start by asking yourself: what is it that you are passionate about.  What gets you out of bed in the morning?  And this is really important, because regardless of how much testing you have done to determine if there is a market for a niche idea or product, if you are genuinely not excited and passionate about it then you cannot expect anyone else to be either.  Let me let you into a little secret – every time we get a new member sign-up at Vegan Business Tribe, Lisa and I do a little dance around the office (or wherever we happen to be at the time). It’s become a ritual now, and I can’t imagine we’ll ever stop doing it because every time we get a new member we’re getting excited about getting to know someone new, about having a 1-2-1 with them and seeing how we can help.  We genuinely get excited at the prospect of getting to know this new person and helping them move the vegan business scene forward.  And THAT’s the feeling you should be looking for when you’re trying to decide on which niche to follow.

So if you already do lots of different things, or you already service lots of different types of customers and you don’t know what to focus on – ask yourself: out of all the things you do, which do you actually WANT to do?  Forget weighing up the pros and cons for a moment, which makes you jump out of bed in the morning?  What will make you dance around the office?  If you could get rid of everything else in your business and just focus on one thing, what would that one thing be?  Because if you do have that one thing in your business that you are really passionate about, that should be the thing you are building your business around, that should be the starting point for finding your niche.  Passion makes all the difference to a business – your customers will see the difference, if you have employees they will see the difference, it will just pour out of you.  Hopefully, when you listen to this podcast you can hear in my voice that I’m talking about things that I am really passionate about, I can only do 12 hours of back-to-back 1-2-1s with new Vegan Business Tribe members because I really love what I’m doing.  And if you have found that you’ve lost the passion in your business then go right back to the thing that made you set-up your business in the first place and start there.  Aligning your niche with what you are passionate about might be the thing that brings that passion back.

OK, so let’s have a recap of what we’ve just gone through on how to find your niche.

  1. A vegan business is no longer a niche business – ‘vegan’ is just the sector you are in.  And if you want to find a niche, you are going to have to dig deeper than that.
  2. A niche is something that most of the population won’t care about – but a select, small per cent of people will absolutely LOVE.  And if you do it right, you can develop a company that has pretty much no competition: folding bike manufacturers for people who live in city apartments, greetings cards for people who love pigeons, personal trainers for people over 50.  How many of those do you have in your local area?
  3. Make sure you TEST your niche idea out before spending time and resources on it.  You might have found a gap in the market but have you tested if there’s a market in that gap? You don’t need to build an entire online course before you test if there’s interest in it, run a couple of Facebook lives or Zoom sessions first and see what kind of people you attract.
  4. If you have a niche service or product selling to really targetted customers, then you know what their exact problems are.  You can make sure all your marketing messages will really connect.  It’s far better to get ALL the sales within a niche that you feel passionate about than be constantly fighting every other company to get a really small percentage of sales in a bigger marketplace that you care less about.
  5. But you don’t need to make the leap to niche straight away, in fact you would be a bit of a fool if you just sacked all your current customers.  So transition – build up your niche offering first and let your old customers naturally fall off as and when they want to.  Or even take some on the journey with you if you can!
  6. Most people find their niche by accident.  But that doesn’t mean you should just sit and wait for it to happen.  Open yourself up to opportunities because it will be a conversation with a single customer, or it will be a test product that takes you by surprise, or a chance encounter with someone at a networking event or vegan fair that will lead to you finding your niche.  So make those opportunities happen. Come to our networking meet-ups on Zoom at Vegan Business Tribe, join in with our support group on the Slack app.
  7. And finally – take your direction from your heart.  Ask yourself what gets you out of bed in the morning because THAT should be the thing you are building your business around.  And aligning your niche with what you are passionate about might be the thing that brings all that passion back to your business.

So that is it!  As always, thank you for listening – I always appreciate you giving up your time to listen each week. And if I can ask you one last favour before you go:  if you found this podcast really useful, then I would love if you shared it with any other vegan businesses you think it would also help. Lisa and I founded Vegan Business Tribe because we don’t think that ‘vegan’ businesses should be the ones with a label. Why should we have to point out that our businesses don’t cause cruelty or harm to animals – it should be the one’s that DO that have to carry a warning. But to get to this point, we need to skill-up as many grass-roots vegan businesses as possible to have a bigger impact on the business scene.  You can be part of that by helping us share our message with all the other vegan businesses you know. A share, a like or a 5-star review if your podcast platform lets you do that all go a really long way.

And finally, if you want to support us on this mission, then go take a look at veganbusinesstribe.com where you can link up with Lisa and I, our community, join in our networking meet-ups and even study our vegan marketing course as well as supporting the work we do – and all for the cost of a cup of coffee a week from your local vegan cafe.

Thank you so much for listening, and I will see you on the next one!

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